Nationals Prospect #23: Mike Hinckley

Mike Hinckley was on the brink of extinction until a move to the bullpen turned him around. Now, he's a potential big weapon out of the bullpen for the Nationals in what should be his first full season in the majors.

Acquired: Drafted by the Montreal Expos in the third round of the 2001 Draft.
Bats: R  Throws: L
Height: 6' 3"  Weight: 170 Pounds
Birth Date: October 5, 1982
2008 Team(s): Harrisburg (23 G), Columbus (20 G), Washington (14 G)
Games/Games Started: 60 G / 7 GS
School: Moore HS (OK)

After spending much of his career as a starter, the Nationals finally decided to give Mike Hinckley a shot at pitching out of the bullpen last season and the plan worked perfectly. Through the 2004 season, Hinckley looked to be in the right place as a starter, going 32-13, 3.03 and moving through the system up to the Double-A level. From there though, things started to go horribly wrong for Hinckley, who then struggled through three seasons of sub-par numbers - 18-27, 5.43 - and his future was starting to cloud terribly. The move to the bullpen didn't pay immediate dividends as Hinckley struggled at Double-A Harrisburg to start the 2008 season, but despite rough numbers, received a promotion to Columbus in July when the Clippers needed an emergency starter. Hinckley filled in admirably and the Nationals decided to test him with an extended stay in Columbus to see what he could do. The results were impressive and Hinckley got a September audition with the big league club and is now penciled into their bullpen plans for 2009. 

Repertoire: One key to Hinckley's success in the bullpen is that he doesn't have to hold back on his fastball anymore. As a starter, Hinckley needed to pace himself more and his fastball was generally around 90 - 92 miles per hour. Now, as a reliever, he consistently pumps it up there in the mid-90s and that has made a big difference in the effectiveness of his fastball, which has a natural downward movement. Another plus to pitching out of the bullpen is that Hinckley needs to depend less on his changeup, which was the weakest of his pitches and generally was the one that would get him in trouble. It was a catch-22, because as a starter, he needed a third pitch, but that pitch wasn't very good. As a reliever, he relies on his fastball and a good, strong curve that has always been effective for him.

Pitching Style: Hinckley relies on his command and on keeping the ball down in the strike zone. When he started to struggle in the minors, he was often letting pitches hang higher in the zone and was getting hurt on home runs. In his first four minor league seasons, he gave up 21 home runs, while in his next three, he allowed 43 home runs and much of that damage coincided with his addition of the changeup after the 2004 season. Last season, he allowed just six home runs in 103 1/3 innings and has a streak of 45 straight innings without allowing a home run, stretching back to his last appearance with Harrisburg in early July. With the added velocity to his fastball, Hinckley is better able to pitch inside to hitters and has used that ability to keep hitters honest at the plate. The Nationals have always been happy with Hinckley's mechanics and the fact that he has never been one to waste pitches; he generally goes right after hitters.

Projection: It now remains to be seen just how far Hinckley can go as a reliever. He actually had better numbers against right-handers than he did against left-handers in his stint with the Nationals, so it's unlikely that he'll be pegged as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen. Manny Acta used him primarily in the seventh and eighth innings last season and it's probable that he'll keep that role for 2009. Could he ever work himself into a closer's role? That's not out of the question, but he'll likely have to serve some time proving himself in late innings before being handed that job. While there are a decent number of innings on Hinckley's arm already, his smooth motion is conducive to keeping him healthy and he has never shown any signs of wear and tear on his arm and has been healthy throughout his career.

ETA: While nothing is ever definite, Hinckley doesn't appear to be headed back to the minors. It's most likely that he'll start the season with the big league club and pitch in the late innings of games, picking up right where he left off last season. After all, he came to the Nats and threw 13 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run, so why change something that was working?

Mike Hinckley's career stats

Rookie 2 2 5.29 0 8 5 34.0 46 23 20 1 12 28 1.71 .329
Low-A 6 2 1.37 0 16 16 92.0 60 19 14 4 30 66 0.98 .188
A Ball 9 5 3.64 0 23 23 121.0 124 54 49 4 41 111 1.36 .271
High-A 22 19 4.49 0 64 63 362.2 390 217 181 35 133 233 1.44 .276
Double-A 19 15 4.66 0 64 45 276.1 307 159 143 21 122 203 1.55 .305
Triple-A 0 2 3.16 1 20 1 25.2 27 11 9 0 15 20 1.64 .278
Majors 0 0 0.00 0 14 0 13.2 8 1 0 0 3 9 0.83 .178
TOTALS 49 37 4.11 1 195 153 911.2 954 483 416 70 353 661 1.43 .273

*Totals column includes only stats compiled in minor leagues.

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